by José Antonio Gutiérrez D. Sunday, 16 November 2008
On 15 September 12,000 cane cutters from Cauca and Valle de Cauca decided to go on strike to protest the inhuman working conditions in sugar refineries, demanding that indirect contracting through [sub-contractors misleadingly named] ‘Workers’ Co-operative Associations’ be ended. They also insisted on wage improvements, as the refinery employers have experienced huge profit increases due to the trade in ethanol without this having any kind of positive impact on the wages of the cane cutters.
Right from the beginning this strike faced violent repression from the riot police (ESMAD), demonisation by the mass media, and attacks by the government itself, with President Uribe going so far as to claim that the strike was "infiltrated" by the FARC-EP. This reaction is not without cause, since biofuels are one of the strategic areas of the Colombian economy that Uribe’s government is trying to stimulate, while one of Colombia’s biggest businessmen, Ardila Lulle, has an effective monopoly over the employers’ association ASOCAÑA.
The workers knew that to confront direct repression they had to keep a united front, and they remained as one despite numerous attempts at creating division amongst them by trying to turn workers on direct contracts against those contracted with cooperatives. The employers even sacked 900 workers who had been on direct contracts and claimed the "losses" were occasioned by the strikes of those contracted "indirectly". They also tried to create a split between the cane cutters and the community, bringing about clashes with the haulage contractors and traders. These attempts failed.
Likewise, attempts to criminalise protest and solidarity also failed: on 22 October the spokesmen for the strikers were arrested, comrades Oscar de J. Bedoya Muñoz, Omar Enrique Sedano García and José Valencia Llanos. Arrested with them were Alberto Bejarano Schiess and Juan Pablo Ochoa, two advisers of opposition Senator Alexander López. Senator López was also slandered for the "crime" of having met with the cane cutters. The government’s message is clearly that solidarity with the common people is a crime.
The determination of the workers showed us, once again, that what is needed for the triumph of the people is the unity of the workers, the unity of the working class. This iron unity, despite the enormous difficulties it faces, has guaranteed that so far the situation has been resolved in eight sugar refineries, with results that favour the workers. This unity is the strike’s greatest achievement, greater even than the direct benefits obtained through the struggle. In the words of one cane cutter:
"During this labour conflict we have made progress in the unity and organisation amongst cane cutters and workers within the agro-industry of sugarcane. Today we are different men and women, today we can say that our greatest feat is to feel different; we no longer think of cane cutters as oppressed and reviled, today we think of them as organised workers – as men and women who, through unity, organisation and struggle, move towards achieving better working and living conditions.
(…) With this labour conflict, with this strike, we continue strengthening the unity of the cane cutters, and of our organisations and communities. Today we have seen a new dawn for the people of Cauca and Valle del Cauca: we are no longer people who hang their heads every time the sugar barons raise their oppressive voice. Now it is those in the great majority – coloured people, Indians, African-Amerindians, and mestizos – raising their voices as one in a rebellious cry for freedom." 
Some of these achievements are, in the words of Adolfo Tigreros, secretary of inter-union relations for SINALCORTEROS:
"An average wage rise of 15 percent; that the refineries recognise and pay for the first three days sick leave that Social Security does not cover; that housing projects are set up for the workers of all refineries, Cauca being the most significant because of the commitment to deliver 120 dwellings a year. Plans for a fund for education in all refineries have now been made definite, and in this case Cauca is again the most important, with a thousand grants for workers and their children.
It has been established that the working day cannot go beyond four o’clock in the afternoon, which means workers can work eight hours plus a maximum of two extra a day, as opposed to the 12 or 14 that they were working up until now. The companies have committed to respecting the workers’ right of free association, and have recorded that the cane cutters will continue fighting to attain direct contracting and the permanent rejection of the sub-contracting ‘workers co-operative’ system. Only 1 percent of these co-operatives are in sugar and alone it is very difficult to break the model. A wider movement will be necessary. At the same time, companies will assume the costs of Social Security and Protection, leaving the cane cutters in the same situation as other Colombian workers.
Another achievement was the control of weighing the sugarcane, which has always been a point for debate because the refineries and their middle management do a lot of manoeuvres to avoid acknowledging the real weight of the cane once cut, and thus they rob the worker. From now on this area will be subject to oversight by the cane cutters."
Comrade Tigreros rounds off his thoughts by agreeing with what we have already mentioned: the biggest triumph was the better level of organisation, awareness and unity amongst the cane cutters:
"There were some great victories, and one important element was the strengthening of trade union organisation: from the 900 workers that were affiliated beforehand, we went to having over 3,000 by the end of the conflict, which means that workers are coming to understand the importance and necessity of trade union organisation, which puts us in a better position to face future struggles (…) In Colombia this is a historical conflict for the working class, who have been hit hard by the neoliberal government that has tried to put an end to trade unionism. The fight of the cane cutters has given new life to the workers’ movement, so that we reorganize ourselves and, through mobilisation, win back the rights they stripped us of and achieve new ones." 
We celebrate the victory that has been won by the cane cutters in the refineries of Central Tumaco, Pichichí, Incauca, Manuelita, Central Castilla, Providencia and Mayagüez. But we cannot forget that there is still one refinery where negotiations are being prolonged and the employer’s obstinacy prevents progress: this is the María Luisa refinery. We cannot celebrate a victory when one group of workers is excluded from the benefits that the others have obtained. Just as unity has been key in reaching this point, it is important to conserve this unity right until the end, until this victory is shared equally by all.
A communiqué by the national leadership of SINALTRAINAL (National Union of Food Industry Workers) reminds us of our duty to redouble support and solidarity for the cane cutters of María Luisa so that nobody gets left behind.
Here is an unabridged version of their announcement to the world:
"We have reached day 61 of the cane-cutters’ strike and the strike has been ended in 7 refineries, but the agreement needed to call off the strike at the María Luisa refinery is still missing. The struggle of our times has NOT ended, and we cannot leave these brave fighters on their own. It is a proletarian obligation that all cane cutters from el Valle and el Cauca, all union workers in this country, all supporting institutions, all social organisations and national and international politicians, throw themselves into supporting the workers still on strike.
Now, today, there cannot be a rest or truce; one single minute of delay in this task could make the difference between success and failure. We do not know what this company is up to, but any intent to harm the cane cutters has to be stopped by an effective demonstration and the active use of our solidarity: daily visits to where people are rallying, economic support, letters of protest to departmental governments, national and international condemnation, visits to the media, leaflets, bulletins, mobilisation in the populations of Valle del Cauca and Cauca; all the expressions of solidarity possible should be put into action right away." 
The importance of the enormous step forward taken by the Colombian workers cannot be underestimated. The Colombian trade union movement has been submitted to decades of extermination, in which since 1991 more than 2,500 trade unionists have been assassinated, more than 40 in 2008 alone. For every 10 trade unionists killed in the world, 9 are executed in Colombia. To this we must add the disastrous effects that the economic liberalisation begun at the beginning of the 90’s had on trade union organisation, and the hostility trade unionism has faced from Uribe, who as a faithful representative of one of the most retrograde and conservative oligarchies of Latin America does all he can to destroy what is left of trade unionism. With this victory, the Colombian working class has shown that it can return to taking the initiative and that it can throw off the huge yoke placed on it by employers and Uribe’s rule [uribismo].
We salute the CUT, SINALCORTEROS and SINALTRAINAL, and all those cane cutters who have mobilised in these historic days of the workers’ struggle. We also salute the workers who are still on strike at the María Luisa refinery: to them we send our support and encouragement. Without you, victory is not complete.
Long live the unity of the working class! Long live the cane cutters of Colombia!